The Thing About Christian Unity Is….

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 10.48.13 AM

If you’re a Christian with a blog, or just an opinion in general, and you have the audacity to critique other Christians, particularly prominent Christian leaders, you will inevitably find yourself under attack by fellow Christians accusing you of “stirring up disunity” in the church. The thought being that if “the world” sees the church display any hint of discord, disagreement, or imperfection, that would be somehow mean the total collapse of the church’s ability to do evangelism or worse, the invalidation of the gospel.

This is, of course, nonsense. If it were true, the church, with its 2,000 years of flawed history, would have collapsed long, long ago. And yet these attacks continue. Why? Because there is a powerful force behind them: fear.

Of course, the church should strive for unity, but what these Chicken Littles of the faith are bemoaning is not the absence of unity, but conformity; conformity to their particular brand of the faith. Moreover, they’re mourning the prospect that their favorite Christian guru or church may not be as perfect as they thought, or needed them to be.

In other words, these self-appointed watchdogs and defenders of the faith come out in droves because their heroes have been revealed for the flawed human beings that they are and always have been. Yet rather than accepting this reality they instead turn towards denial and self-delusion. They become what every great regime needs: spin doctors and masters of propaganda. They fill up comment sections, write blog posts, preach sermons, all in an effort to spin the reality of the situation and cast the critic as the villain and their fallen hero as the innocent victim – all in the name of “Christian unity.”

You see, the thing about this sort of Christian unity is that it’s nothing more than propaganda.

Like all good propaganda, it’s not really unity that is sought, for diversity can not only exist within a unified people, it can thrive. What these Christian propagandists seek is conformity and the assurance that they are right.

To their credit, these Chicken Little’s of Christian unity are quite eloquent and often very effective in their propagandist efforts.

Take, for example, Tim Challies, a popular blogger who recently came to the defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a organization which has been criticized, and rightly so, by other Christians for refusing to cooperate with civil authorities in an investigation into accusations of sexual abuse. According to Challies,

“This situation is unfolding before a watching world that loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace. You and I are responsible to do well here, to be above reproach in our thoughts, words and actions. We are responsible to be marked by love whether evaluating a difficult situation or taking appropriate action. We can make the gospel look great or we can make it look insignificant.”

What makes Challies’ words so devastatingly effective is his ability to not simply move the guilt away from those who have created the problem and place it on those calling them to account. Effective though that is, what makes it so powerful in a Christian context is the way he turns critique, an amoral and often healthy practice, into nothing short of sin.

The absurdity of this is stunningly profound, if not altogether repugnant.

And yet it is a technique employed over and over and over again from the most prominent celebrity preacher to the lowliest internet troll and everyone in-between all of whom’s greatest fear is, apparently, being perceived as less than perfect. This need to be perfect, or at least to be seen as perfect, is a temptation that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s need to be like God – to be perfect. Like Adam and Eve we still listen to words of the snake and believe that being less than divine is somehow a flaw.

So, we do everything in our power to maintain the myth that our leaders, our churches, our theological systems, and, by extension, we ourselves are perfect. This is what is at the heart of so many of the recent cries for Christian unity. But the righteous indignation of “Christian unity” that runs rampant today has is more often than not nothing more than propaganda for sustaining a false and unnecessary narrative of perfection. A collective effort to sustain a lie.

The truth is the church is and always has been populated by imperfect people.

But the church has never feared this imperfection.

In fact, she has embraced it.

You see, if effective evangelism required that the world perceived the church as perfect, never arguing, and always agreeing on everything, there would be no Bible.

Think about it – the Bible begins with the story of a people who try to become gods and fail. Then when learn about a drunk named Noah. There’s Lot who slept with his daughters and the great father of the faith, Abraham, who was a pathological liar. Moses was a murderer, David an adulterer, and Solomon a polygamist. The entire nation of Israel were serial spiritual adulterers throughout much of the Old Testament. In the gospels we meet a group of 12 disciples who were power hungry doubters. Paul was a terrorist and if we learn nothing else from his letters it’s that the early church was constantly bickering.

Which means, if the writers of the Bible had listened to the modern propaganda about Christian unity and “sowing disunity” the Bible would never have been able to be written because it’s just too bad for PR.

At its core, the Bible is scandalous. It’s the account of all the many ways God’s people have screwed things up. And yet there is no attempt to coverup any of those perfections. Why? Because the Bible is a testimony to the fact that God doesn’t need perfect people. God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things – and He’s not afraid to do so. If anything, God seems to relish using the prodigal son or daughter to accomplish God’s will.

The Bible is a story of broken people saved by a broken savior who’s offer of salvation is a call to live a broken life.

That’s the good news of the gospel, the scandalous news we’re supposed to be proclaiming to the world we’re so worried about impressing.

Yes, we are called to perfection, but the resurrection didn’t instantaneously perfect the world. It simply begins it. Which means the perfection of the church is not something we will experience on this side of eternity…and that’s ok.

This means if you are a Chicken Little, convinced the church will collapse at the smallest sign of “disunity,” you need to direct your righteous indignation somewhere useful. Perhaps towards the fact that millions of children go to bed starving every night, or towards the lack of effort given to prevent the loss of millions of lives to curable diseases, or towards the defense of basic human dignity denied to so many because they don’t look, sound, or believe like “I” do.

Or pick another cause. Get creative. Just find something more productive to do with your time.

Yes, the unity of the church is a noble pursuit, but it can’t be driven by propaganda, itself motivated by fear and the idolatrous need to be seen as perfect. As important as unity is, so is the church’s integrity, honesty, and ability to deal truthfully and effectively when she fails.

To do that, and maintain the unity we all want, we must remember that our unity is not found perfection, but in our brokenness. It is found in our willingness to break bread together in the face of that brokenness as we come together to worship a broken Savior.

We are a broken people and that’s ok.

In the face of a world that demands perfection, this brokenness of the Body of Christ is nothing short of scandalous.

To reject that brokenness for the sake of public perception is to reject the cross and the God who was crucified upon it.

If we are going to be united as a church, it won’t come about through a sustained PR blitz.

Our unity as the people of God will only come about through our willingness to embrace our shared brokenness.

 

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

 

  • Pingback: Is It a Sin To Critique Our Leaders? | Joy in this Journey

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    There indeed is a huge difference between a thoughtful critique and outright slander, and the trouble comes when critique is read as slander.

    • ZackHunt

      Whoa, whoa, whoa Ed. Are you trying to say that all critique isn’t slander spewed directly from the mouth of the devil?? :)

  • Jon

    Excellent article. The thing blocking the church being unified is our own egos and arrogance. If we all ideally united in service of Christ we would be much more united.

    Although condemned by many evangelicals and fundamentalists who are more concerned about protecting their own authoritative islands than being the hands and feet of Jesus, the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ is an excellent example of uniting for Christ against our secular culture. In order for the folks to sign that they really had to acknowledge both similarities and differences, move past it being ok to agree to disagree and unite for a common purpose. I would say that coalition is stronger and more united in Christ BECAUSE OF their differences.

  • Jon

    Also, unfortunately since American Protestantism is founded on the principle of division when disagreements arise, this will be a constant problem and more and more denominations and “non denominationals” will pop up so the pastor’s authority cannot be questioned or challenged. I hope people begin to see they are following men and not necessarily Christ. Think of what happens when a pastor leaves a church for another. Half the congregations leaves with him. It is a strange phenomena if american Christianity

    • CCG

      You make a valid point Jon.

      Disagreement on non-essentials will always tempt us to focus on what
      Christians disagree about instead of the more important things we agree on. Zach also has a good point- there is a delicate balance needed. Could it be that the divisions we have are not so much caused by our mere disagreement, but more because we make our disagreement a bigger issue than it really is ?

      There are two extremes to avoid- we should not encourage conformity (unification) and idealistically believe we can all agree on everything, nor should we go to the other extreme and allow our disagreements to practically divide us as we garner support for our view or following. There are absolute truths- the essentials of our true Christian faith (the “definition” of that is important these days) – but there are also issues that are really not that important.

      There are healthy ways to express disagreement and there are not so healthy ways. There are also times when we need to seek common ground and speak the same thing.

      “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

      1 Corinthians 1:10 NKJV

      Let’s encourage one another to have faith in the impossible. We cannot give up simply because we will never be completely united practically. Our brokenness will cause some trouble, and for that we all need to give the same mercy we have been given.

      commonchristianground.org

      • Jon

        I agree. I think you may appreciate this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien Letter 306:

        The ‘protestant’ search backwards for ‘simplicity’ and directness – which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because ‘primitive Christianity’ is now and in spite of all ‘research’ will ever remain largely unknown; because ‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian ‘liturgical’ behaviour from the beginning as now. (St Paul’s strictures on eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because ‘my church’ was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history – the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the ‘mustard-seed’ and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is pan of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites, and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm, if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth of the plant when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils.

  • Katie
    • Karen

      Katie, as the mother of a wonderful 16-year old son, my heart goes out to you. I found your site very hard to navigate to figure out what is happening most recently in your family, but it appears you feel let down by whatever church and pastor you were most recently associated with. I don’t think many pastors/churches are very well equipped to deal with this kind of situation. My brother was caught up in the “Boston Movement” for eleven or so years, so I understand some of your pain from that angle, too. If you haven’t read it yet, Ron Enroth’s book Churches That Abuse is a good reference. It may lead you to some others and some wise counsel. I’ll pray for you and your family.

  • Emily_Maynard

    Zach, this is so so important. Thank you for saying it with precision.

    Critique hurts and I understand that. But a healthy person will be able to take that hurt and channel it to deeper understanding and real change in behavior. It hurts when I’m called out and it’s true. It sucks and I’m embarrassed. But it’s that sting of being wrong that makes me do more research, listen better, and change my behavior.

    There’s this idea that all critics want to do is sting and sting and sting church structures and the people leading them, but that hasn’t been my experience. It takes tremendous effort and courage to critique well and I’m grateful for my friends who do that.

    • ZackHunt

      “Critique hurts and I understand that. But a healthy person will be able to take that hurt and channel it to deeper understanding and real change in behavior.”

      Amen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.raub1 Rachel Raub

    Aren’t so many Christains still wrestling with each other? We are not the enemy. But there is one and he is LOVING that we hate each other. He holds up the hatred hoop and Christians jump right through it like trained dogs. We were told who, how and when to fight. We are just so proud and dumb and righteous that we fight ourselves and the enemy gains more ground. Sad. Mea Culpa. I have also… We do have rusty tools that we seldom use.

    • ZackHunt

      I don’t think disagreeing with each other, even vehemently disagreeing, means we hate each other. I may disagree with Tim Challies about this particular issue, for example, but I certainly don’t hate him. Personally, I don’t think disagreement within the church is necessarily the work of satan. I think it’s just the natural outcome of the church being mean comprised of human beings.

  • Temperance

    If Christians spent more time in self-examination than indignation, we would feel less hateful toward the rest of the world and be more likely to have a connection and a voice. Time and energy is better spent questioning why we ourselves feel and see things the way we do than focusing on what’s wrong with everyone else and how they need to change. That mindset only breeds discontentment and hatred and alienates others.

  • http://twitter.com/TinyandFierce__ Cassie Chang

    Thanks for yet again breaking down damaging rhetoric in such a precise way. Just help me here, on what basis do you call Paul a terrorist? I know he destroyed churches before he became a Christian…

    • ZackHunt

      I’m referring to his life as Saul before he became Paul when his life was dedicated to creating fear, panic, and even death for those who followed “the Way.” For example, from Acts 8: “And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”

      Or Acts 9: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”

      He may not have strapped a bomb to his chest and thus fit the mold of a modern terrorist, but Saul/Paul’s tactics were/are the quintessential definition of creating terror/being a terrorist.

  • Karen

    Matthew 10:34-35 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; 36 and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’”

    1 Corinthians 11:18-19 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.

    Surely, these passages show that some disunity is inevitable if we care about the truth and about genuinely following after Christ as opposed to merely keeping the peace and keeping up appearances. A healthy critique of teachings and leaders is absolutely necessary for those that are “approved” to be recognized as such.

    A problem with the wider world of Christendom today is that there is no agreed upon mechanism for resolving doctrinal controversies nor holding individual leaders accountable as there was for the first 1000 years of Christianity (i.e., when there were bishops who met in council to refute heresies and an agreed upon model of Church leadership wherein it was at least theoretically possible to discipline a fellow bishop/presbyter for misconduct or teaching heresy).

    • Jon

      You are absolutely right in your understanding that this is necessary. And like there was for the 1st thousand years of Christianity there is still an answer snd system on place today. The Zroman Catholic Church had this authority in 1000AD and still does today. The authority never left as Jesus said, “I will be with you until the end of the age” and “the gates of Hades will not prevail against [the church].

      For some reason Protestants view this differently, how I do not know, but the Magesterium is still there to settle disputes of doctrine and the system of Bishops is still there exactly as it was in 1000Ad and in 100AD.

    • Jon

      Karen,

      Since the Orthodox Church is not in full communion with Rome, how are doctrines and discipline figured out? I’m just curious about your system, is the Patriarch of Constantinople the “Orthodox Pope”? Does the Orthodox Church have its own councils like the Vatican II Council?

      Thanks!

      • Karen

        Jon, for the first 1,000 years A.D. as you have noted, what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox were one and the same Church whose bishops were in Eucharistic Communion with one another, and whose doctrinal expression and discipline were worked out in a conciliar fashion (and continue to be worked out on the local and regional level in this manner in the EO Church).

        In the EO communion, all the bishops have equal spiritual authority, and the administrative authority of each is limited to his own diocese. One bishop cannot interfere in another’s diocese, and cannot even minister there apart from an invitation from the local bishop. “Apostolic Succession” is a charism of the whole local Church as much as it is that of the bishop. Different than in Roman Catholicism (or Anglicanism), in Orthodoxy a bishop who “goes rogue,” i.e., who persists in schism and/or heresy, does not keep the charism of “apostolic succession” just because he was once ordained bishop in the Orthodox Church. In Orthodoxy, “apostolic succession” is as much a matter of the bishop’s actual ongoing relationship with the whole community of the Church and its unchanging dogmatic faith as much as it is of his ordained office per se. He does not keep that office or the charism in the Orthodox Church unless he remains in Eucharistic Communion and common dogmatic faith within her.

        I’m not an expert on all of the historical particulars, but I can say I experience Orthodoxy as a something of a different “entity” than either Roman Catholicism today or any of the Protestant churches, despite the many commonalities all Christians have. I have read that in some ways, the EO regard Roman Catholics as the first “Protestants” (since it was the Roman Pope who initiated the Great Schism)! Broadly speaking, both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism share something of a more forensic and juridical approach to understanding the gospel, the maintenance of spiritual disciplines, and the administration of the church that is different than the Eastern Orthodox approach, which is more organic and relational in nature.

        The Orthodox continue to function in a manner dependent upon the Holy Spirit ultimately to maintain our unity–the process is very “organic”, not subject to any strict administration of legislation or “top-down” authoritarian structure, so sometimes this can look confusing and messy even to those of us on the inside of the EO Church (God’s ways and timing are not alway ours). We have no “Vicar of Christ”, no Pope, except Christ Himself by the Holy Spirit in the whole Church, yet we have maintained our liturgical and dogmatic unity from the earliest centuries as well as a monasticism substantially unchanged from the methods and rules of the earliest Christian monastic communities. The Orthodox still use the Nicene Creed in its original form (the only form and Creed ever used universally throughout the whole Church at one time)–without even allowing the addition of “the filioque” clause. Even the “Apostle’s Creed,” familiar to many churches in the West, was only a local Creed, though it is fully theologically Orthodox. There have been no substantial changes in the EO Liturgy since around the 8th or 9th century (though it is generally eventually translated into the vernacular languages of local churches).

        I have read that with the Latin West following St. Augustine (who spoke and read Latin, but not Greek) and the Greek-speaking East following the thought of the Greek-speaking Fathers, there were small divergences of thought between East and West beginning from about 400 AD. These theological differences increased with the philosophical developments of Scholasticism and then the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in the West, which were not a factor in the East until relatively recent times. But all this is just touching the surface of things. Best to find an Orthodox priest if you’re interested in learning more.

        • Jon

          Thanks so much for such a detailed response! I appreciate the info and will definitely read more into it. I just picked up a book on the entire history of the Catholic Church so I imagine as I work through that I will learn more too. I know a lot of progress between east and west has happened in the last decade and it would be great to have the Apostolic Churches united in the future! I always enjoy reading your comments, us orthodox (little o) need to stick together ! (I think Zach is about there too ;). )

          • Karen

            You’re welcome, Jon. I doubt there will be healing of a 1000 year old schism in the near future, but I welcome anything that facilitates greater cooperation and understanding between the two communions as a good thing–especially in view of the rampant secularism and attack on faith in so much of the surrounding cultures.

  • http://twitter.com/NeighborFoodie Courtney Rowland

    Great piece. It seems to me that part of the reason the church has these scandals to begin with is precisely because people were afraid to stand up and question broken systems. And the worst possible witness we can give to the world is that of silence, especially in cases where children were victims. We do not need to express solidarity with other believers if they are committing acts that hurt others and hurt the church. We can express forgiveness, brokenness, redemption, hope, but not solidarity. I do not stand with abusers.

    And in other milder cases,for instance disagreements about church doctrine or discipline, I think disagreement and critique is a mechanism for growth. I have to think iron sharpening iron doesn’t always mean we agree with each other, but rather that we challenge each other and spur each other on to a deeper understanding of salvation. I think we’re called to do this in respectful ways, and in ways that do not resort to name calling or demonizing those we disagree with. But honestly, where would the church be if great men and women hadn’t had great big arguments and publicly disagreed?

  • http://www.orthodoxroad.com/ Jeremy M

    A good and thoughtful post. What attracted me to it was the Eastern Orthodox icon you have at the top. I think thoughtful and loving criticism is healthy. You’re right that disagreements fill the Bible and if you read ancient Christian letters written by guys like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, you’ll find that they are often addressing problems in the Church.

    I think it may be unhealthy though if we stay in a state of disagreement and when criticisms become unloving. Also, people often aren’t able to admit that they’re wrong and so we stay in this state of disunity.

  • Pingback: The Divine Protest of Pentecost